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Arkansas, Missouri have similar messages, different perspectives

 

Brandon Walker

 

HOOVER, Ala. -- One is trying to fight his way out of the cellar in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division. The other is trying to stay on top of the SEC's Eastern Division. 

 

But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel each arrived at SEC Media Days on Wednesday spreading a similar message: Last year no longer matters. 

 

"Winning the East has been very positive for us in every way," Pinkel said of his team's SEC East championship in 2013. "But this is a new year, a great challenge. We want to continue to compete at a high level. That's our challenge this year as we head into year No. 3 (in the SEC)." 

 

Bielema, whose initial year at Arkansas resulted in a 3-9 disaster that didn't yield a conference win, was upbeat about his team for 2014. 

 

"The biggest difference to me in my first year in the SEC was the losing versus winning," said Bielema, who won 68 games in seven seasons as coach at Wisconsin. "It's quite simple. I'd had tremendous success at Wisconsin. I didn't expect to go 3-9 my first year. By the same account, I didn't expect to win it my first year, but it was a disappointment. This is a new year." 

 

Pinkel, whose team finished 12-2 with a Cotton Bowl win last season, kept his answers short and direct in his third visit to SEC Media Days. Much of the talk surrounding the Tigers focused on redshirt sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk, who relieved injured starter James Franklin midway through the season and threw 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions. 

 

"That experience I think helped him tremendously," Pinkel of Mauk being forced into action. "I think our players have a lot of confidence in him." 

 

Mauk's emergence will be key for a Missouri team trying to replicate a 7-1 league mark. To do so, the Tigers will have to move forward with 14 returning starters, including four on defense. On the defensive line, the Tigers lost three players, including NFL draft picks Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. 

 

"We've been fortunate on the defensive line for the past eight years," Pinkel said. "We've produced at a high level. We need our young players to produce." 

 

On offense, Missouri will have to replace wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, a former top recruit dismissed from the program in March due to disciplinary issues. 

 

"We lost a really great player," Pinkel said. "I wish Dorial nothing but the best." 

 

Missouri's schedule, particularly in the SEC East, stiffens a bit this season. It will go to South Carolina and Florida and play at former Big 12 Conference member Texas A&M. 

 

While Pinkel did his best to put last season in the past, Missouri defensive end Markus Golden had no problem referring to the 12-2 mark as a benchmark for the program. 

 

"At Mizzou, we believe we can compete with anybody, and last year that's what we were able to do," Golden said. "We're going to try and do the same thing this year." 

 

At Arkansas, Bielema returns 16 starters, including starting quarterback Brandon Allen and sophomore tailback Alex Collins. Bielema hopes to build momentum from a finish that saw Arkansas drop each of their final three games against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and LSU by less than 10 points. 

 

"We did a wholesale change," Bielema said. "We're still a certain type of offense, defense. We're going to put an emphasis on special teams. We're just going to do it a lot better. We've done a lot of little things that are going to affect the big picture. 

 

"I get excited because the things we've done have shown they can win in this league. Year two, although we don't know the record yet, my full heart belief is it's going to be better than year one. That's going to be determined on a weekly basis, but I do know it's going to be better." 

 

Arkansas opens the season with a daunting task, a road game against defending SEC champion Auburn. But a schedule that includes home games against LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama, and Georgia presents Arkansas with opportunities to right the ship. 

 

"To play Auburn up front, to play a team that played in the national championship game, can be nothing but a positive," Bielema said. "It's a motivating factor for us year-round, from the time it was announced to where we are today. If I show (the team) Auburn in the national championship game, I'll probably get their attention in a hurry. There's a lot of common ground between us and Auburn." 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat.

 

 

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